Concerns rising over global helium shortage

Concerns rising over global helium shortage

Prices have soared for versatile gas used in everything from MRIs to smartphone manufacturing

Balloon store owner Tammy Still of Richmond, B.C., says the current helium shortage has sent her costs soaring by as much as 300 per cent. (CBC)

The third helium shortage in slightly more than a decade has prices soaring faster than a kid’s balloon lost in a windstorm.

But the problem runs well beyond children’s birthday parties. These days, helium — much of which is a byproduct of natural gas or LNG production — is used in everything from MRIs to smartphone manufacturing.

“There are five major global suppliers of helium. Two of them have been rationing supply since February 2018,” said Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant based in Bridgewater, N.J.

Kornbluth said producers have been forced to cut supply because of a number of maintenance outages and delays in new projects, including a ruptured underwater pipeline in Qatar.

With just 14 liquid helium plants in the world, those outages are enough to send helium prices skyward.

Helium industry consultant Phil Kornbluth says the shortage is a result mainly of planned and unplanned maintenance outages at helium plants. (CBC)

Hikes have been significant in the balloon business, where some are seeing jumps of up to 300 per cent over the past six months. 

“I used to get [helium] tanks for around $100. Now they’re running around $300, give or take,” said Tammy Still, owner of Balloon Place in Richmond, B.C.

Party balloons may be one of those little luxuries one can easily do without, but in this case, they’re also a harbinger of a potentially far more serious problem.

Far bigger than balloons

Helium is an extremely versatile gas used in a myriad of industries and applications. In many of those uses, there is no suitable alternative.

“There are major industries that rely on helium in their manufacturing processes, for instance semiconductor manufacturing, optical fibre manufacturing, the aerospace industry,” said Kornbluth.

The single biggest user of helium is probably MRI’s, which use the liquid form as a coolant, Kornbluth said.

But helium is also crucial in particle accelerators and nuclear fusion research. It’s used in some metals refining applications as a controlled atmosphere. 

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